27-year-old cellist to play Brahms Sunday with BSO

Posted Jan. 28, 2010, at 5:55 p.m.

Alisa Weilerstein is not making her Bangor Symphony Orchestra debut this Sunday. The cellist actually made her debut with the Symphony in 2001 at the tender age of 18, performing a program of Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

“It seems like it was so long ago. Everything was so different for me then,” said Weilerstein, now 27. “I did have my first lobster experience, however.”

She’ll play Brahms with the BSO again this weekend — the double, with violinist Chee-Yun — at the first concert of 2010, set for 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 31, at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono. Weilerstein also will perform a recital with Chee-Yun at 8 p.m. tonight at Minsky Recital Hall on the University of Maine campus.

Back then, Weilerstein was an up-and-coming young cellist. Now, she’s one of the top stars of the classical music scene. Yo-Yo Ma has sung her praises. President Barack Obama invited her to participate in Classical Music Day at the White House last November. She’s played with most of the major national orchestras, and just a few weeks ago returned from her second trip to Venezuela, where she performed with the world-renowned Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, part of the El Sistema program of youth orchestras.

But it all started with a box of Rice Krispies, a toothbrush and a bad case of chicken pox.

“When I was a small child, my grandmother came to take care of me while I had chicken pox, and my parents were touring,” said Weilerstein, who’s parents, Donald and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, also are acclaimed musicians. “She brought all these instruments made out of cereal boxes, and I gravitated toward the cello. When my parents came back, they were rehearsing in the house, and I played along on my cereal box cello, scrubbing away with my toothbrush bow. It was very frustrating.”

By the age of 4, Weilerstein had convinced her parents to buy her a real cello. Since then, it’s rarely left her side. Renowned for both her passionate, visceral playing and her technical chops, Weilerstein brings an exciting energy to any stage she graces. For her performance of the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello, she takes the history of the piece and molds it to her own style.

“Brahms wrote it as a peace offering to Joachim Caruso, one of the best violinists of that time, who was one of his best friends,” said Weilerstein. “This huge rift developed between them because Brahms got his wife deported. He wrote this for him. The cello is very much the voice of Brahms. There is a very beautiful, fiery, passionate duet between the violin and cello. You can hear the dynamic of Brahms and Caruso.”

In addition to her two performances this weekend, Weilerstein will lead a cello master class, set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at Minsky Recital Hall. The class is free and open to the public and is funded by the Dr. Maurice P. King Master Class Fund, established last spring by longtime BSO supporter Constance Barnes, in memory of her father, a former BSO harpist. Three high-school-age musicians from eastern Maine will perform for Weilerstein during the class.

Weilerstein understands intimately the effect music can have on young people — from her own experiences as a cardboard-cello-playing child to her time spent working with El Sistema in Venezuela, where young musicians are trained from a very early age to perform with orchestras. Thousands of talented performers have come out of the program, including Gustavo Dudamel, who now conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“The students down there, they really play as if their lives depend on it, and in many ways it does,” said Weilerstein. “The emphasis isn’t on the individual as much as it is on the collective experience, and it really works. They sound unbelievable. It’s an incredible musical renaissance. It’s really beautiful.”

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